Friday, December 17, 2010

Pre-Departure: Learning How to Teach

Roaming the long, cluttered halls of Washington Elementary School, I couldn’t help but feel thrust into an episode of LOST. Flashbacks to long-forgotten memories hit me like landmines at every corner.

Nearing the girl’s bathroom, I recalled a time when a small squad of fifth grade boys and myself mounted a successful rescue operation to save our captured comrade from a band of malevolent fifth grade girls. We ambushed them just as they were about to drag him into their cootie-infested bathroom lair. After a short but fierce battle, we managed to sweep him away to the sanctuary of the schoolyard basketball courts. Needless to say, it was a great victory in our struggle against the nefarious Washington School girls.

Little did we know it was all in vain; puberty was destined to make us their slaves.

But I digress.

Lisa Jaffe at work with English Learners.
This time I wasn’t there to engage in counter-insurgency operations; I was there to learn how to teach children English.

Prior to departure, WorldTeach requires all volunteers to accumulate twenty-five hours of experience working in an English Learner classroom. I chose to complete this shadowing Lisa Jaffe, an English Learner teacher at Washington School, my old elementary school.

Although I had acquired a modest amount of teaching experience over the years from coming in to help my mom in her first grade classroom, I had never worked with English Learner children. My experience shadowing Lisa was, in a word, awesome.

Since she works with EL students from multiple grade levels, I was able to work with a wide range of students, ranging from kindergarten all the way up to fifth grade. The majority spoke Spanish, but there were also kids who spoke Turkish, Russian, Japanese and Korean. Most of the kids spoke at least a little English, so our focus was on improving their pronunciation and reading abilities.

Artwork provided by Yours Truly.
Typical lessons were engaging, hands-on and fun—something I learned is very important to the learning process when working with children. For example, we were teaching one group of students about parts of the face, so we gave them a large piece of construction paper with the outline of a face and had them draw eyes, ears, nose, mouth, etc.

We gave another group of students a piece of paper and had them write a few sentences about what they would sell if they were a peddler (yeah, it’s a politically correct term) and then illustrate it. I displayed my own artistic brilliance by illustrating my own scene as an example for the children. Unfortunately, this said brilliance hasn’t evolved much since the second grade, but it was apparently good enough to impress my students to the point of fighting over who got to take the masterpiece home.

As we worked on our art projects, the students asked me how old I was. I asked them to guess. They said 65. I asked them why they thought I was so old, to which they responded, “Because you are really tall.” Go figure.

van Gogh ain't got nothing on me!
 The highlight of the week came when I got to take a group of underprivileged students to participate in Operation School Bell, an annual charity event that provides school clothing to over 900 children in San Mateo County every year. The program's goal is to provide the basic need of clothing to enhance the self-esteem of underprivileged children and help them succeed in school and beyond.

The kids were thrilled because they thought of the outing as a field trip (and were too young to understand their situation). Lisa and I took the kids to the Operation School Bell location a few blocks from Washington School. The site resembled a mini Goodwill and each child was able to pick out new t-shirts, pants, a jacket, socks, underwear and a pair of shoes. In addition to the clothes, every child was also able to choose a book to bring home, which I thought was particularly awesome.

I had a relatively awkward moment when one of the elderly volunteers operating the site asked me if one of the children was my son, but other than that it was an unbelievably rewarding experience.

Operation School Bell Facility
For kids used to worn hand-me-downs, the prospect of having a new wardrobe to call their own brought a mile-wide smile to their already-excited faces.

As I watched the kids proudly clutch their newfound spoils, I remembered why I am taking this crazy chance in the first place; to help children like them have a shot at a better life—because no matter what station you are born into in this world, everyone deserves a chance to dance. 

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